The viral spread of the #metoo campaign has made me wish that I had known, fifteen years ago, that I was not alone. I might have told someone about the sexual harassment. I might have said ‘no’. I might not have laughed it off and thought it was part of my job, as a rare female engineer in the car industry. I might not have left the industry I loved.
We have the chance with the #metoo movement to change the world – for our daughters and our sons – so that they don’t have to suffer in silence, the way we did.
My friends see me as a confident and strong person – and I am – but I still put up with what I now see what harassment and abuse, for decades. Why? Because I thought that was how men treated women, because the risks of speaking out were too high (being ostracised or losing your job), because I thought I could handle it. Here is a tour of some of the experiences I had – most of which even my husband didn’t know about until the #metoo campaign:
#MeToo The Overly-Friendly Clarinet Teacher
It started with my clarinet teacher, when I was 13. He would take his shoes off and tap time on my foot (my shoes had to be off, too). Then he would stand behind me and reach his arms around my chest to do the finger-work on my clarinet, while I practised the breathing and rhythm work. He would stand so close I could feel his belly moving against my back as he breathed. I didn’t like it, but I thought that was how you taught. And there was a class in the next room. Surely he wouldn’t do anything inappropriate with a school teacher just a few feet away?
I put up with it for years until a change of school brought me a new teacher – who never came within three feet of me. The only person I ever told was a fellow clarinetist in a Big Band that teacher ran. He did it to her, too. We realised it was wrong. Somehow he found out I had spoken about it and within a week I had been chucked out of the band that had been my social life for years.
I then had a dry spell on harassment as I went through University. I studied Mechanical Engineering and German. The only time I had problems was in nightclubs, where lewd comments, groping in queues at the bar and wandering hands were the norm. I took to going clubbing in polo necked black tops with a black skirt and black tights and boots, trying to make myself invisible, but this seemed to make it worse. It became the received wisdom that, if you went clubbing, the price you paid was putting up with the harassment.
My summer placements in engineering firms all passed uneventfully.
Then I graduated and got my first ‘proper’ engineering job.
#MeToo The Groper & The Photoshop Expert
I loved my first graduate job. Working in a factory, specialising in systematic ways of improving quality and productivity, building strong working relationships with the guys working on the line and their managers – all of this was exactly why I had studied so hard for five years. And the job was brilliant, apart from two men.
The first was Mr. Photoshop. Back in those days, Page 3 calendars were everywhere, even in the engineering offices. I used to wear smart, practical clothes to work and nothing suggestive or revealing. It was always an uncomfortable feeling, sitting opposite a man in a meeting, knowing he was looking at the Page 3 or Pirelli calendar directly behind me, comparing, imagining. And Mr. Photoshop took it to new heights. He was proud of his skills.
One morning I went down to the part of the production line I was working with and the naked Miss October had a new face – mine.
[Tweet “One morning the naked Miss October had a new face – mine. #metoo #engineer”]
They guys were really proud of what they had created. They genuinely thought I would be pleased. I asked them if they had daughters. They all did. I asked them how they would feel if she had to experience this at work. They said they would kill the guy. My point was made and the poster came down, but they were never as friendly with me again as they had been before. I was never forgiven for saying ‘no’.
At the same time, one of the managers of the factory took a shine to me. I remember sitting in the board room one day, wearing a skirt, because I had to do a major presentation at HQ that afternoon. We were in a senior management meeting. I was speaking and suddenly I felt a hand on my inner thigh – inside my skirt. I was too shocked to do anything other than move my leg and continue speaking. Somehow I never told the man it was unacceptable. So it got worse.
There was a door in the factory with a one-way mirror and he used to love to stand on the ‘invisible’ side of it, watching for me to come through, and he would plant a slobbery kiss on my lips. His colleagues thought it was hilarious. When I objected, I became the ‘Ice Queen’ and he stopped cooperating with me, making it hard for me to get a decent appraisal from the placement.
To protect myself, I made a deeply-unconscious decision to make myself as unattractive as possible. I stopped wearing nice clothes and opted, instead, for the factory’s workwear which was about as unflattering as you could get. And, over the space of that six months, I went from a size 8 to a size 12. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence.
I never told anyone, until after I left, at which point the boss of the Graduate Scheme was outraged and wanted me to make formal complaints, but I knew that would end my career with the firm, so I just got on with life.
My Boss’s Porn Stash
I was working late one evening and saw an internal mail envelope had been put in the wrong in-tray for one of our team. Instinctively I picked it up to move it to the right person’s desk. As I did, the contents fell out: a heavy collection of porn magazines. On top of the magazines was a post-it note with a list of names on it, all men in my team, some with ticks. I felt sick. I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t believe they were sharing this stuff like the minutes of a meeting – all of us sitting together.
I was in tears. My boss walked in to the office and asked me what was wrong. I showed him the envelope and told him what had happened. Ironically, my major concern was how – let’s call him Fred – a very kind and fatherly-figure man in the team – might have been distressed by it. They were in his in-tray and his name was on the list, unticked. I couldn’t believe he would have wanted to receive magazines like these.
My boss took the magazines from me and promised to make sure the people involved were ‘dealt with’. I went home, shaken, but trusting him, not knowing how I would face the men in our department the next day.
The next morning I got into work to find no one was talking to me. They were livid that I had ‘stopped their fun’ and made it clear they blamed me for objecting. When I tried to defend myself by saying our mutual boss had promised me he was going to ‘take action’, they laughed. He was the one whose handwriting was on the post-it note.
In pieces, I went to speak to HR, more to ask for advice than anything else. The prim lady with her glasses and high-buttoned blouse was suitably enraged and promised serious action. I told her I felt I would have to hand in my notice. She soothed my fears.
[Tweet “Top tip: never discover your boss’s secret porn stash in the internal mail. #metoo #engineer”]
For weeks, if not months, none of the men who had heard about what happened would talk to me, even many who weren’t ‘on the list’, other than business-critical discussions. I was given the silent treatment. It hurt. My boss had a short meeting with his manager and was told not to do it again, then it was back to playing golf together. The HR woman never spoke to me again, as she considered the matter closed.
I applied for a transfer to another site.
My New Nicknames
I was used to having to bend my knees to make eye contact with people in the factory who were absent-mindedly staring at my breasts. It was no big deal any more. But the new nickname hurt. It left me feeling vulnerable.
Peanuts. (It was often cold on the production line). I heard them say it as I walked towards their office on the factory floor for a meeting, following an ISO9000 audit I had done on their production line. I felt mortified. Despite thinking I had a great working relationship with these production line managers, the way they were talking about me behind my back showed they had no respect for me. At least, that was what I felt.
In their world, it made me ‘one of the boys’ – I was accepted because they had given me a nickname.
When I asked them to stop and explained it made me feel uncomfortable, they gave me a new nickname: Ice Maiden. Crazily, I preferred peanuts.
And the nicknames and other stuff that was talked about in the factory – such as comments about my figure or how lovely I was looking that day – and worse when they thought I wasn’t listening – was meant as a compliment. It’s the same locker-room banter that Donald Trump brought to fame during his Presidential campaign.
The Rape Alarms In The Ladies’ Loos
Why would a factory in England ever need rape alarms in the ladies’ toilets? That should have been the first question asked by whoever filled in the purchase order and asked the engineering managers to fit them.
What needs to change in the company culture so that women feel safe?
This one was the final straw for me and it triggered me leaving engineering – a vocation I still miss.
I was sitting in a compulsory ‘diversity’ training with other senior managers. I was the only woman, which said lots. Somehow the discussion moved on to the previous weekend, when one of the managers had been tasked with fitting the rape alarms in the women’s toilets on the shop floor (factory). He didn’t know where to put them, so he called in some friends and they had a merry half hour imagining where in the toilets they would rape a woman, including acting it out. The men on the course thought this was hilarious. The trainer did nothing to point out how this was so very wrong, on so many levels.
In that moment, I decided I could no longer work in an industry where the management team felt I was at risk of being raped – and thought it was something to joke about. It was just one day after my boss’s boss told me he was blocking my promotion to another site, because he would lose the bonus he got for having two female engineers on the staff, and he asked me to wear ‘more feminine shoes’ because he didn’t like seeing me in my Doc Marten safety boots.
[Tweet “No company, ever, should feel the need to fit rape alarms in the women’s toilets. #metoo #engineering”]
Don’t Get Me Wrong – Most Of The Time It Was Great
I loved being an engineer. I made many friends with whom I’m still in touch. I got to work with many amazing people who taught me so much. I got to make a difference. And most of the time it was a great career. But when it wasn’t, it was terrible. And none of those friends knew. In fact, if any of them read this, they might feel upset. My message to you, if you’re one of them, is please don’t be. It was my choice to stay silent. And those who did this were not my friends.
Why have I written this?
Because I want to inspire other women to ‘come out’ on this – to stand up for themselves – and each other. We need to create a culture where there is zero tolerance of this. We need to stop pretending it’s ok.
We need to give each other the courage to speak out, whether we’re on the receiving end of this or witnessing someone else being harassed.
I’m not trying to invoke a pity party or get sympathy. I feel very blessed that my past 14 years as a NLP Trainer and nearly a decade as a Meditation and Mindfulness teacher have given me techniques to allow me to acknowledge, process and forgive the old fear and pain that this type of harassment builds up. I feel free from my past, which is why I am able to share it with you. And I can see that the path this took me on has had positive outcomes.
In fact, it’s one of the reasons I wrote You Take Yourself With You. In it, the main female character – Sophie – rejects her boss’s sexual advances and, in revenge, he sets out to destroy her career and her confidence. Part of the story is about her journey through that experience and how she eventually told her secret, got the help she needed and set herself free from that pain. I’m really hoping that Sophie’s journey will help and inspire others to reclaim their power, to get the support they need and to set themselves free from this.
We need to stop pretending that sexual harassment is rare. Or in any way acceptable. We need to raise awareness of the little actions that cause deep pain. We need to help each other to heal, to accept the past, to forgive those who hurt us, to set ourselves free to create a new future.
Through the #metoo I have seen so many women – and men – opening up about what they have been through, finally getting the support they needed, experiencing being honoured, for what they have been through, spreading a wave of support and love.
[Tweet “#metoo What could you do, to help create a culture where sexual harassment is no longer tolerated?”]
We all need to stand up to this kind of behaviour, to stop tolerating it, whether we’re on the receiving end or just watching from a distance. We need inspired action, to change the world. I’m curious: what could you do today to take a step forwards on that journey?
I would love to hear from you, via the comments.
P.S. I know this topic can be really difficult.
If it has affected you, one of the most potent tools I know to shift the difficult emotions, without having to dive into the drama of the story, is EFT – meridian tapping. It’s one of the techniques I teach my clients and students and I have a free video training that could really help you – Getting Started With EFT.
You can get instant access to the EFT training here – as my gift.